The “Jobs” Illusion(s) and the Work We Must Do

Politicians love to talk about “job creation.” They wallow in social illusion in order to appear to care about the economic future of the people and the nation. At the same time, they pander to the interests of job destruction, whether through automation, international outsourcing, or simply unlivable wages. At the same time, they facilitate the financialization of an empty uber-economy, producing vast sums of phantom wealth for their benefactors on Wall Street.

Political Economy of Job Loss

Many of the jobs lost in recent decades in the U.S. are due to mobile corporate capital seeking to exploit immobile pools of desperate labor in any country where wages are cheapest. The international trade agreements the pandering politicians promote, enable the mobility of corporate capital seeking to exploit cheap labor abroad. They override worker protections as well as restrictions on environmental pollution. Above all, they nullify national sovereignty over such matters of domestic policy by ceding authority to international corporate tribunals. As with other job losses due to automated production, we often hear that “those jobs are never coming back.”

One of the core values held by corporations has always been to reduce the costs of labor and materials in order to increase profits. Nobody should be surprised at that. It is an almost natural part of doing business. However, achieving business success does not require a corporation to refuse its employees a livable wage. Consider Walmart and Costco. Walmart grew to be one of the largest most profitable corporations in the world by squeezing the wages of its employees to the point where many are on food stamps. (Its purchasing power allows it to squeeze its suppliers with similar ruthlessness.) In effect, the American taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s profits. Costco, on the other hand, pays its employees a living wage with benefits. The difference in energy and cheerfulness between Walmart and Costco employees is obvious to anyone who visits both stores.

What Infrastructure?

Politicians also like to trumpet our need to “rebuild the nation’s infrastructure,” primarily its decaying roads and bridges. Trump emphasizes the need to modernize U.S. airports. I suppose he wants executive lounges at our international airports to emulate the decadent opulence of Trump Towers.

old-bridge

Old Infrastructure,  Paradigm Lost.

The hard-to-imagine “president elect” offers programs that would subsidize the construction industry work already ongoing, rather than directly fund new public infrastructure and infrastructure repair.

Rarely mentioned are dilapidated schools or poor teacher pay. Politicians love to characterize teachers as overpaid, lazy, and arrogant. Nevertheless, the education of America’s youth is one of the most important forms of infrastructure I can imagine. In other industrialized nations, especially in northern Europe, teachers are highly respected and well paid. Their focus is on the well being of students. Student learning consequently rises far above that common in the U.S. Should we be surprised? Education, if the heavy administrative overburden were eliminated, could be a relatively carbon neutral investment in the future.

Enter climate change. The heating of the earth’s atmosphere due to ever-growing emissions from two hundred years of burning fossil fuels continues producing now obvious catastrophic consequences. Yet political resistance and denial prevail. We ignore much of our own participation in the production of carbon emissions due to a number of complex social psychological forces.[1] The politics of short-term economic interests encourage denial and ignorance in attempting to continue on the path of fossil-fueled affluence. It follows from facing the hard facts of climate disruption that a new great transformation of the entire global economy is necessary. That is the most massive transformation of infrastructure imaginable. It is a leap into the relatively unknown. By comparison, the current talk of “rebuilding America’s infrastructure” seems as trivial as it is misguided. It seriously misses the mark when it comes to the infrastructure work that we must do.

The Climate Crisis and the Work We Must Do

Right off the bat, we might ask why such a benign sounding term as “climate change” has dominated any discussion. First, it was global warming. Then Senator Inhofe held up a snowball in Washington, D.C., as if that proved that global warming was a hoax. Gradually climate change became the dominant term. When I had used the term “climate disruption” a couple of years ago, a Sierra Club activist told that they too preferred “disruption” because “change” did not convey well the reality of climate impacts. I now prefer “climate destabilization,” which seems an even more accurate way to describe the effects of industrial civilization on climate systems. The new world of unstable climate systems requires a new paradigm. “Rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure” merely affirms the old paradigm.

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Wind Turbines in Holland, 2016

The science is undeniable, yet politicians routinely deny it in favor of providing political cover for the economic interests of their biggest donors. Those donors, of course, are the very corporations that extract and emit the carbon that warms the atmosphere and destabilizes global climate systems. The same politicians favor reducing corporate taxes and the taxes on the highest incomes, as if the income tax system were somehow abusing those powerful special interests.

The share of taxes paid by the largest corporations and the super-rich has steadily declined ever since the 1950s. Back then, taxes on corporations and the very rich were much higher, the economy was robust, and the national debt was small. In fact, the power elites get away with not paying anything near their “fair share,” as the nation’s infrastructure crumbles and the national debt grows.

Meanwhile, as politicians cling to their old paradigm and its corruption, the nation’s most urgent infrastructure need goes almost entirely unnoticed, rarely mentioned, and routinely denied. Yet, the facts require us to take action now to re-stabilize the climate systems upon which human life depends. We cannot afford not to take drastic action now. We must redirect the nation’s wealth to transform the economy from carbon excess to carbon neutral and to recapture carbon. We must be rapidly reduce net carbon emissions to less than zero by re-establishing ecological systems of carbon storage – tropical forests, for example – not by industrial illusions of “geo-engineering” symptom suppression while denying the root problem.

Deniers distort the uncertainty about the exact location of particular individual effects of global warming. They falsely claim that scientists do not really know whether climate change is real and/or “man-made.” The science of CO2 is long standing, never challenged until it became politically expedient to do so. The global climate system is extremely complex, making it far more difficult to predict an individual weather event than to document the overall trend of increasingly extreme weather, rising seas, and melting glaciers. They use variations in weather to deny the overall trend of increasingly severe droughts, floods, and storms that already disrupt climate cycles and agricultural production.

The short-term economic interests of the most powerful institutions and individuals in the nation prevail. In fact, we need institutional support to build out carbon neutral infrastructure rapidly. It has become extremely urgent, yet political decision makers largely ignore the issue. If ever a massive “jobs program” were possible, we could easily create it by executing a national economic policy of replacing all fossil-fuel based energy systems with new carbon-neutral systems of energy production and use.

Think of it. Stop production of all fossil-fuel burning cars. Build out a national network of electric vehicle charging stations while ramping up electric car production. Require all consumer products to be carbon-neutral, with temporary exceptions where life and health require them. Replace all coal and natural gas burning plants with solar and wind electricity generating systems, which are already more cost effective. Stop all natural gas and oil fracking operations; their total carbon pollution rivals that of coal.

Job losses? Well, they would be trivial in the oil industry compared to the job creation involved in the transformation to carbon neutral energy production and use. Yes, many people would have to change occupations, move to another location, and re-tool some skills. But that has always accompanied economic change. Are we not that resilient?

Continuing on our current path of carbon emissions will lead to a 4-degree Centigrade increase in average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels in the next several decades. That will be extremely catastrophic, resulting in societal collapse and may well also lead to human extinction. The UN agreements set a 2-degree limit, while acknowledging that 1.5 degrees is probably necessary. The actual “commitments” of the signing nations did not even reach the 2-degree Celsius target. The only conclusion I can reach from all this is that the people, where we live, must mobilize ourselves and begin the work that we must do. We must also pressure the institutions that are now obstacles to redirect their destructive policies toward the well being of people and planet. This is beginning to happen at places like Standing Rock, where the destructive forces of extractive capital directly threaten people. We must all find our own Standing Rock. Social movements create their own jobs. So little time, so much to do.

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[1] George, Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It: why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) provides a wealth of information on the scientific basis for understanding the tendency to ignore or deny the overwhelming facts of climate disruption and its catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

Small World, Big Change: Chasing the New Great Transformation

The cliché, “the world is getting smaller,” sometimes jumps right out at you in an incident or experience that is entirely unexpected. That happened to me one cool fall evening. My wife sat at a table at the entrance to the Torreon Marriott Hotel (a small part of a global story of transformation in itself), as I retrieved my jacket from the car. She introduced me to the gentleman with whom she was talking. Georg is some sort of international executive with BMW, who was considering an extended stay in Mexico to help establish certain BMW business interests there. He had just completed a seven-year stint in China. Georg speaks five languages and owns a home in the U.S. One crosses interesting paths in unexpected places in the small world of international travel. I sat down, anticipating an interesting conversation.

Naturally, topics ranged from cars – especially those “ultimate driving machines” – to international agreements on climate action. Georg confirmed how terrible the smog has been in Beijing. However, he assured us that it is getting much better since the government forced the move of over a hundred companies out of the city. Of course, that does not change the total carbon pollution resulting from Chinese industry, but it does provide a bit of relief to Beijing residents. Georg confirmed my impression that the Chinese, despite their massive current levels of carbon emissions, are taking a number of positive steps toward carbon constraint.

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Beijing Smog. Source: BoredPanda.com

I asked Georg if he knew of any incentives for conversion to electric cars in China. He replied that in Beijing today, a license for a fossil-fuel driven car is more expensive than the car itself, and it is very difficult and time-consuming to obtain. If you want to buy an electric car, the license is free and immediately available. Since a charging infrastructure is not yet built, electric vehicle drivers in Beijing can rely on mobile charging units simply by calling a company that will come and charge their electric car for a modest fee, while they work, shop, etc., at a particular location.

Like so many, Georg affirmed his bafflement over the U.S. election of Donald Trump. He indicated how ambiguous the consequences seem for implementing international agreements on climate action. We didn’t dwell on “The Donald.”

I suggested that development of battery technology seems to be progressing well. Georg confirmed my thought, stating that 250-mile range is available now and 350-mile range configurations are coming on line for production. For the U.S. that would eliminate the issue of range if we built a recharging infrastructure soon. However, in the U.S., the political climate remains dominated by climate denial, despite the incontrovertible science and growing public awareness. Politicians of all stripes talk of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, but they usually refer to roads and bridges for our fossil-fueled vehicles. Trump likes to assert that our airports are “terrible, terrible,” and need to be “modernized.” Airlines make public relations gestures around reducing carbon emissions, but no real plan to do so exists. Established economic interests dominate political decisions.

Mexico’s transportation sector is much like the U.S. Crowded cities with similar traffic jams punctuate vast open spaces. Neither have adequate rail transportation, except for industrial transport. In both, conversion to electric vehicles would require a deliberate government policy of establishing a network of recharging stations and incentives for conversion to electric vehicles. Of course, that will be a problem in the U.S. with its continued political culture of climate denial and fear of “liberal conspiracies” to control everyone by programs of climate action. Do we really have to leave climate progress up to Elon Musk?

The fundamental underlying fact is that humanity is now undergoing a New Great Transformation, much larger than the industrial revolution and vastly more crucial to our prospects on this planet. In 1944, Karl Polanyi, in his prescient book, The Great Transformation, predicted many of the problems that have resulted from the industrial revolution and subsequent proliferation of industry. The ecological consequences of globalization of the industrial system have reached far beyond anything he could have imagined.

Today we are already witnessing the early stages of a New Great Transformation that will change the role of humanity on earth forever. We must take action globally now if we are to make the big changes necessary for our own survival in the context of the converging crises that are leading to global chaos. We must act or suffer the consequences. The actions required themselves constitute a great social transformation.

We have already changed the world in entirely unanticipated ways. Vested interests in our increasingly suicidal path resist Big Change, seeking short-term profits while ignoring the obvious signs of a catastrophic future. Failure to take the extreme corrective actions needed to re-stabilize both the climate and ecological systems worldwide will be disastrous. We must take charge of the New Great Transformation; it is a matter of survival or extinction.

The world may be getting smaller, but its problems are getting much bigger than ever before imagined. We live within complex living ecological systems, long ignored by our economic and political elites. Our actions have destabilized those systems, yet we are utterly dependent upon them. That is the essence of our problem. Big Changes are already the reality we have inadvertently created. Our situation now calls upon us to change our behavior in ways that are unprecedented and very hard to imagine. The New Great Transformation is for humanity the point of no return. We must imagine a future that our world can tolerate.

Olympic Teamwork and the Ugly American

biles-raisman-lochte

I have never been much for ceremony. Neither Michael Phelps leading the U.S. team into the Olympic Stadium nor the pomp and circumstance of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics interested me. I marveled at both the individual and team efforts, especially those of the Brazilian and the U.S. teams. As always, Olympic performances do not fail to impress.

The U.S. women’s gymnastics team was particularly astonishing, and not only for their individual talent and skills. Gymnastics seems to represent pure generic physical talent and skill. Yet there is a very important mental factor. I grew up near the beaches of Southern California and played volleyball there myself as a teenager. Naturally, the beach volleyball competition drew my attention. Each team has only two players; the indoor variety involved plays by the larger teams that are more complex.

I was amazed when I heard a commentator describe Michael Phelps’ unique physical characteristics. Wingspan wider than his body height, lung capacity several times larger than the average person, huge hands, a long torso and double-jointed limbs, all contributed to the success of his drive to win. His superior performance became less surprising. Yet, there is much more to Olympic performance than physicality.

A Special Kind of Olympic Teamwork

Something very special about the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team drew my attention. The “Final Five” were a team in the truest sense of the word. Gymnastics is an individual sport. Whether on the uneven parallel bars, floor exercises, etc., it is all about the perfection of individual performance. The team called themselves the Final Five because their world-famous team coordinator, Martha Karolyi, was to retire after the 2016 Olympics, making them her last of many Olympic successes. Their “team spirit” was exceptional. Simone Biles talent reigned supreme. Yet her teammate Aly Raisman performed her role as team captain as superbly as her own spectacular comeback performance.

The mutual aid and support of the five young women who work so well together reminded me of the total commitment and training of the Navy Blue Angels or the Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic teams, whose individual performances and mutual coordination constitute life-or-death challenges every time they fly. I saw a documentary once depicting the level of precision piloting, interpersonal coordination, rigorous physical training, and individual discipline required for the Thunderbirds’ achievements in formation flying. They have to do extreme physical training in the gym in order to handle the extreme g-forces their maneuvers entail. The level of individual commitment and mutual trust is almost inconceivable to a non-pilot or even an ordinary pilot. But it is not about the flying itself; it is about the almost unbelievable level of coordination and self-control needed to accomplish their mission. Very similar qualities were quite evident in Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and their teammates.

The Ugly American Exposed

Enter Ryan Lochte and friends. As one commentator put it, his performance represented the worst stereotype of the “Ugly American” during his night on the town with his teammates in Rio de Janeiro. It reflected the unfortunate reality of, as the commentator said, the attitude that, “Anything goes south of the equator” for white wealth and privilege. It is not just that some athletes partied most of the night in town after the high stress of competition. That would not be unusual or outrageous in itself.

After urinating in public and vandalizing property at a gas station in Rio, Lochte and his white-privileged friends figuratively urinated on the brown people of Brazil. Exercising their sense of self-importance and privilege, he and his teammates lied about their vandalism. A security guard at the gas station had confronted them demanding that they pay for the damage they had done. Exercising their sense of privilege, they denied their own culpability and projected it onto the security guard. They falsely claimed to police that someone impersonating a police officer had robbed them.

Later, on reflection, Lochte exacerbated his culpability in response to Matt Lauer’s softball questions in a televised interview after his return to the U.S. He gave pathetic partial excuses, claiming he had “over-exaggerated” what had happened. Say what? His “apology” did not really extend beyond excusing his behavior by reference to his drunkenness. The Ugly American plunders the world, then blames his victims and claims he did not really mean to do any harm. The U.S. media meanwhile ponders the financial cost of his losses of corporate product endorsements. Give me a break.

Camaraderie of a Higher Order

It is hard to imagine Lochte’s and his fellow swimmers’ behavior in the home of their hosts having been much sleazier. The contrast with the women of the U.S. Gymnastics Team could not be greater. Its members represent not just the best of athletic performance, but also the best human values of self-discipline and mutual aid.

Simone and AlyThe positive energy and mutual support of the women of the U.S. Gymnastics Team were a remarkable sight. In a sense, they represent far more than a superb athletic achievement. Even more important, they symbolize what humans are capable of when they put their minds, bodies, talent, and skills to the test. These women stepped up, took the challenge before them, and did what they had to do to meet that challenge together.

These are exactly the qualities that we need most to pull off the Next Great Transformation of human economy from environmental plunder to ecological harmony. Too much in the behavior of the Lochte gang reflect the widespread U.S. culture of corporate greed, self-righteousness, and individual self-aggrandizement. Lochte’s false contrition reflected a total lack of compassion. Simone, Aly, and their teammates have shown a higher order of respect and camaraderie, capable of great things, capable of achievements greater than we could have imagined.

Today, as a society we face challenges that require social changes so deep they too are hard to imagine. As a nation and as a species we face the necessity of making changes that go far beyond what might seem to be the limits of our capabilities. Just as on the gymnastics floor, no guarantees assure success. Far too many of us are complacent or indifferent to the damage we have done to our home – the planet.

In thinking of what lies ahead and the level of social mobilization needed to deal with the climate crisis, I often think of the economic and social transformation U.S. society accomplished through collective effort in order to fight and win World War II. The level of effort and social mobilization necessary to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid catastrophic consequences will be far greater. In that effort, we will all need to behave like a Simone Biles or an Aly Raisman.

Why Recycle? Sometimes the Necessary is Insufficient

I have been recycling for a long time. At first it was just aluminum cans and glass bottles, especially when there was a deposit to collect. Then plastic grew to dominate the world of packaging. Of course, the process has gotten more sophisticated in the last couple of decades. Remember the 5¢ redemption on glass bottles, ‘mid-twentieth century’? Why, I even remember the milkman collecting the empty glass milk bottles when he delivered our milk when I was a little boy in the late nineteen-forties. But that was re-use, not recycling. I suspect those glass milk bottles, when cracked, chipped, or broken, were just thrown in the trash. But their useful lives had been extended beyond twenty-first century imagination. I sometimes remember little details about my post-WWII childhood better than what I came into this room for a moment ago. But that perspective also gives a sense of what is possible and what is necessary outside the twenty-first century framing of “prosperity.” Today’s consumerism is driven by the high-tech petroleum-based industrial culture of perpetual economic growth and one-use post-consumer waste.

AParallelWorld.com (APW) is a new Website dedicated to helping consumers live a “parallel lifestyle” by buying only ecologically sustainable products and services. Living a parallel strategy can be done now, even though the economic culture would have you think otherwise. While not always obvious, many consumer decisions involve making a ‘mainstream’ or a ‘parallel’ buying choice. Buying organic lettuce, for example, involves avoiding the heavily fossil-fuel based industrial agriculture. Less petroleum inputs such as insecticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and fuel for giant industrial harvesting machines and long-distance trucking, etc., all contribute to lower carbon emissions. But then the proliferation of plastic packaging of produce, whether organic or not, ups the carbon cost of eating.

Plastic Proliferation

Plastic Proliferation

To be honest, I hate plastic “clam shell” produce containers. Last week, I went to Whole Foods to get some butter lettuce for a salad my wife was to make for the APW holiday reception. Despite its well-deserved “whole paycheck” reputation, I marvel at the diversity of fresh and varied food products from around the world available there. It is the only place in the middle of the Southwest desert where you can pick up some “not previously frozen” fresh Alaskan halibut – just a day out of the sea – if you happen to have that increasingly rare upper middle class income. Many prepared salad ingredients are displayed along an entire isle. “Mixed baby greens,” pre-washed spinach leaves, Romaine hearts, etc., are all neatly packed in plastic containers. Ah, the conveniences afforded the remnants of the upper middle class!

Finally, the recycling of plastic in “progressive” Santa Fe has reached beyond the limits of No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles. Now, most numbered plastics can be recycled. Yet, as we are able to recycle more, the proliferation of plastic, plastic-paper combined, and unidentifiable fused materials combinations used in ever more complex packaging systems just accelerates. Ultimately, something is wrong with the whole industrial cycle that creates such a growing need for additional recycling.

Images of wholesome fresh organic food are belied by the carbon cost of the food-presentation fetish of marketing strategies that require more recycling. Increasingly necessary, recycling is yet another carbon emitting industrial process. The proliferation of complex packaging systems matches the expanded technologies for the production of diverse plastic packages themselves. I have noticed more and more plastic packages that have no recycling code at all. Who is exempt and why? Sometimes the recycle triangle with number is so feint and obscurely placed as to suggest an intent that it not be seen. Is the ethic of recycling contributing to the expansion of the growing abundance of “post-consumer” waste by reducing the pressure on overloaded landfills? Perhaps, but something deeper is at play.

In the cultural context of prolific consumption and waste, recycling is the proverbial finger in the dike, hardly holding back the flood of anthropogenic ecological disaster. We could recycle everything and it would not stop global warming before it reached the point of no return from climate catastrophe and social chaos. Paradoxically, recycling is another fossil-fuel dependent industry. Don’t get me wrong. Recycling is absolutely necessary, but it is also absolutely not sufficient. If the parallel strategy really takes hold and works, there should be far less need for recycling.

There is a big difference between “re-use” and “recycle.” Those glass milk bottles in the nineteen-forties were re-used many times before they were probably discarded instead of recycled. Their surface showed the wear of repeated insertion and removal from those old heavy-metal wire baskets during their long life of re-use. Their utility was not wasted on today’s obsession with “single-use.”

It is sort of like the carbon tax we have failed to implement. The cost of producing so much “post-consumer waste” must be accounted for at the point of extraction for manufacture. Otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves. The extraction and burning of fossil-fuels should be taxed at the point of extraction. So should the production of plastic packaging. The revenue generated by a direct tax on carbon energy production – think Exxon-Mobil – should be used to convert energy production to the simplest forms of renewable technologies now available. And part of the increased price should be rebated to those who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods.

In the same vein, the production of plastic packaging should be taxed at the point where it is prepared for introduction into the commercial environment – the factory. What is most important about consumer waste is that it can only be reduced by constraining its production. If all, or even half, of the butter lettuce is contained in plastic clam-shells, we have lost. In such circumstances, the consumer has little or no choice, and the energy and materials wasted hurry us along to climate catastrophe. The most important thing about recycling is the necessity of reducing its necessity.

The Trouble with Economics: William Nordhaus and Pope Francis

Economics is perhaps the one social science “profession” that is most entrenched in the political economy of contemporary nations. Little economic thought escapes the halls of academia without the neoliberal stamp of theoretical approval. The trouble with most of the social sciences is that it is very difficult for them to actually be scientific. In the first place, complexity is amplified exponentially by the fact that human behavior is mediated by language. Moreover, the language of human affairs is saturated with concepts and terms that have implicit political content.

Economics, like sociology, political science, and psychology, is a “discipline” that is disciplined by ideology. In particular, in its contemporary form economics is a powerful influence over national and international political policies, especially as applied to economic forces in society. Economics is in turn powerfully influenced by the most prevailing societal forces in the world today – the machinations of financial elites. Academic economics is dominated by the so-called “free market” theories for which Milton Friedman is most famous. From his intellectual throne at the University of Chicago, Friedman and his minions have dominated the economic framework of U.S. international as well as domestic policies for decades. Of course, there is little human freedom in the corporate-controlled “free markets.” Many of these policies have been at the heart of U.S. imperial strategies of foreign domination in the later twentieth century right up to today. U.S. geopolitical strategies have been driven largely by attempts to control world fossil-fuel markets.

Empire of Emissions

Anyone so naïve as to believe that U.S. foreign policy is meant to “bring democracy” to other nations must read Confessions of an Economic Hit man, by John Perkins (2004). As an “economic hit man,” it was Perkins’ job to persuade leaders of developing nations to accept huge loans to build massive infrastructure projects that did little to aid the development of those nations. Instead, they were designed and structured to bring poor countries with rich resources into submission to U.S. corporations and indebtedness to the U.S. government and the Big Banks. The deals required the money from the loans to be spent with U.S. construction companies on projects that would never generate enough income to pay off the loans. Pressure was then brought to bear on such nations to comply with U.S. political demands for resource exploitation and political subservience. Perkins’ book is a fascinating on-the-ground account of the workings of the expansive imperial structure, the larger picture that Naomi Klein characterizes as “disaster capitalism” in her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007).

Despite the exposure of the massive economic and social failings of the growth-at-any-cost form of predatory extractive capitalism that is ideologically propped up by the neoliberal economic theorists, not much has changed in “modern economics.” This is also true of the specialty of “environmental economics.” The latest effort to stand firm supporting “market mechanisms” as the means to solve all problems in the world, is made by William Nordhaus. His essay in the New York Review of Books, October 8, 2015, tries to destroy the economic credibility of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican Press, 2015. Available at w2.vatican.va).

Nordhaus is Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University and a well established environmental economist. His attack on Pope Francis’ encyclical pretends to be grounded in supposed rock-solid economic facts of “effective” market approaches to restraining carbon emissions. He entirely ignores the strong evidence that carbon trading in Europe has been a dismal failure. Rather than having a basis in scientific findings, his analysis is actually grounded only in neoliberal economic ideology. It ignores both the severity of the economic and ecological facts of our destabilizing world and the moral questions raised by Pope Francis’ argument.

At least ecological economists examine economic systems as operating within the living earth systems that sustain all life, including economists and other humans. Norhaus’ failure – and that of economics in general – is that he treats earth systems as mere economic factors to be incorporated in the economists’ models of market forces. In fact, economies are human systems operating within and now seriously disrupting the earth systems upon which they rely. This is a direct result of the propagandistic role of economics in the political culture of the U.S. and most of the other industrially overdeveloped nations.

Immoral Economics

Nordhaus wants to protect the failed economic system by tweaking its damaging impacts. However, living earth systems are being so severely destabilized by the fundamental ways that system operates, that only a massive reorganization of human economic life will be sufficient to allow those systems to re-stabilize.

Nordhaus concludes his essay by chiding the pope for not endorsing a “market-based solution” such as carbon pricing (and the disaster that is carbon trading) as “the only practical policy tool we have” to turn back the dangerous trends of climate change. Certainly, such “solutions” would constitute the limit of action if we had to accept the corporate free market ideology. But Pope Francis has other ideas. He asserts the social immorality of a system that destroys climate stability and all that depend on it while creating more plutocracy and poverty. Pope Francis calls upon the people to turn away from compulsive consumerism. He calls upon world leaders to abandon the “magical conception of the market” and to turn away from the failed economic system they have allowed to rule us and severely damage the planet.

Nordhaus will have none of it. He dismisses economists like Anthony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Joseph Stiglitz, who recognize in different ways the relationship between capital gone wild and increasing inequality. By attacking the idea that climate disruption causes poverty, Nordhaus attempts to deflect attention from the fact that unrestrained predatory global capital causes both. He optimistically asserts that utilizing assumed magical qualities of market mechanisms can somehow undo the damage that unbridled global capital markets have wrought. That is the trouble with economics.

Political Pathology Trumps Political Democracy, or not?

Granted, the media frenzy over “The Donald,” as if he were some sort of political “outsider” riding in on a white horse to save the American people from all those “politicians” running for president, is rather astounding. Crass is in with the mass media. It is hard to find any genuine political process in all the hoopla or in the sniping among the vast array of Republican candidates for the nomination. The Democratic National Committee’s attempt to anoint Hillary as their candidate while snubbing the only candidate of either party – Bernie Sanders – who presents himself as representing actual policy positions is certainly quieter. But it is no less anti-democratic, if less blatantly demagogic, than the likes of a Ted Cruz or a Jeb Bush, or any other member of the GOP Clown Car.

Most fascinating to anyone interested in the process by which the corporate and financial elites control the political processes in the U.S.A., is the relative media attention allocated to Sanders versus Trump. The best the media can do in that regard is to compare the two as “outsiders” appealing to the vast frustration of voters with “establishment politics.” While it is said that Trump is widely despised in New York, it is hard for me to visualize the self-proclaimed billionaire real estate developer as an “outsider.”

Broken Democracy, or Is That Oligarchy Behind the Curtain?

It is also widely acknowledged that “Washington is broken.” Yet, is it really? To be “broken” implies that something was supposed to work in a certain way but due to some problem it does not work properly and needs to be “fixed.” I would suggest that the national political system is not broken; it is working exactly as it is intended by its elites. That is the problem.

Paul Cienfuegos, a regional leader of the Community Rights movement, argues that our nation “more and more resembles a corporate oligarchy.”[1] Sheldon Wolin characterizes our illusory democracy as actually being an “inverted totalitarian” system that maintains the formal trappings of democracy while a corporate-state elite controls the economy and political process.[2] Chris Hedges proclaimed the Death of the Liberal Class, saying that while liberalism once provided the controls over the excesses of corporate capitalism, only the rhetoric remains.[3] Kim Phillips-Fein documents the decades long crusade by business against the New Deal that ultimately destroyed any serious political mitigation of the social damage caused by laissez faire capitalism.[4] These authors have each identified key elements of the pseudo-democracy that has in fact become a plutocracy.

Business won the struggle Phillips-Fein describes; liberalism had provided partial management of capitalism in the public interest, but it was destroyed. Only the rhetorical claims of liberalism serving the public interest remain, as Hedges points out, mostly in the abstractions of the platform and pontifications of Democratic Party politicians. The rest is finance capital managing politics and the economy in its own interests. Legal restrictions on speculation of investment bankers using depositors’ money had restrained finance capital until the elimination of all post-Great-Depression protections. Those restrictions are gone now.

The final blow was begun by Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, and completed by the rest of the Goldman Sachs crowd, rotating through the Executive Branch revolving door from Wall Street to the president’s cabinet and back to Wall Street. Every regime since Clinton has allowed the economy to be directed by Wall Street executives such as George Schultz and Timothy Geithner in the sole interests of the Big Banks and investment houses.  That, of course, resulted in the financial crash of 2008. And now the Democratic National Committee wants to hand us Clinton II?

Avoiding Catastrophic Destabilization

The deeper problem is that these political-economic developments have accelerated the most destructive tendencies of extractive predatory capital. The planet and its peoples have been plundered at accelerated rates for over two hundred years, but especially over the last half-century. The result is climate destabilization, accompanied by accelerated species extinctions that are synergistically destabilizing local and regional ecosystems around the world. The warming of the planet already results in extreme weather conditions, but will soon also entail consequent massive food-crop failures, mass regional starvation, mass migration, water and other resource wars, and the likely collapse of the global economy. Meanwhile, the charade of political democracy shields the corporate path to human extinction.

Paul Cienfuegos argues that the national complex of legal and regulatory systems is rigged in favor of allowing the corporate destruction of the planet to continue. He suggests that the only way to avoid catastrophic climate destabilization is for local communities to resist. They must pass and enforce local laws that prohibit corporate destructive practices in their towns and counties, even though such laws may violate presumptive state or federal jurisdiction. The democratic rights of communities to protect the health and safety of their citizens must be asserted. That just might be the only way that the affirmation of political democracy can trump political pathology and protect the planet.
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[1] Paul Cienfuegos, “Local Governance,” talk given in Minneapolis, MN, 23 Feb 2015. Transcript from Alternative Radio. http://www.alternativeradio.org/
[2] Sheldon Wolin, Democracy, Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Spector of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
[3]Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class. New York: Nation Books, 2010.
[4] Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal. New York: Norton, 2009.

Public or Private: It’s Time to Decide

The imminent conversion from fossil-fueled energy production in the U.S. to renewable sources of electricity is quite uneven. In New Mexico, it might be described as bizarre. It is not at all clear what the motivating forces driving the biggest electric utility, Public Services Company of New Mexico (PNM) or the governmental regulatory agency, New Mexico Public Regulatory Commission (PRC), actually may be. But it doesn’t look good.

We PNM “rate-payers” may be excused for feeling a bit dizzy. Each revelation of PNM attempts to avoid its duty as a public utility to serve the public interest, is bad enough. PNM’s private corporate interests prevail, with recurring foot-dragging, mission corruption, and endless corporate spin. The unspoken goal would seem to be to continue down the deadly path of high carbon emissions as long as PNM can get away with it. The falsified analyses of its proposed plan for the pollution-laden San Juan Generating Plant in the Four Corners area, is a case in point. It involves long-term coal commitments that entail huge public liabilities for intolerable carbon emissions at ever-increasing costs. It seeks to keep energy-supply contract decisions secret from the public while negotiating to keep far more coal and nuclear power in “the mix” than is in the public interest. That is simply outrageous.

PRC passivity is no less disturbing. The PRC supposedly “regulates” utility companies in the public interest. As Steve Terrell, columnist for the Santa Fe New Mexican, recently noted, some PRC commissioners and staff have met with a securities analyst, who presumably sought to learn the status of the PNM proposal for the San Juan generating plant. But high-end analyst-PNM executive lunches and private analyst meetings with PRC commissioners and staff? In Jon Stewart’s parting words, “If you smell something, say something.” Three of the five PRC commissioners just voted to drop the attempt to enjoin The New Mexican from publishing relevant documents – a small glimmer of hope.

The PRC should actively pursue the public interest. Yet it seems indifferent to how PNM might ultimately meet the State’s modest requirement for 20% of electricity generation to be from renewable sources by 2020. Why has not the PRC developed a carbon-emissions reduction plan as a baseline for negotiations? PNM should find ways to meet PRC requirements – if the PRC had any. The PRC just waits for a PNM plan it can legally accept. That is not nearly enough. Getting to low carbon-emissions energy production requires a strategy that does not add coal, nuclear, and fracked-gas sources electricity generation. That is precisely the direction that the PNM proposes and the PRC takes seriously. New Energy Economy, A non-profit intervener in the case, offered an economical emissions-reducing alternative to PNM’s financially self-serving plan. Its analysis exposed the faulty calculations and convenient conclusions of PNM’s proposal. Its plan demonstrates the superior cost-effectiveness and sustainability of much greater reliance on renewable energy technologies, while accelerating emissions reduction. PNM’s coal-laden proposal is driven by its own financial interests in direct conflict with the public interest.

PRC Acting Director of the Utility Division told me on the phone that the PRC’s policy criteria for ruling on the PNM proposal for the future of the San Juan Generating Plant is based on New Mexico law, which specifies that electricity generation must be 15% from renewable sources by 2015, for four years, then 20% by 2020. Proposals, objections, and agreements are to be weighed by the commission on that basis in evaluating PNM’s proposed plan. The San Juan Generating Plant and adjacent coal mine, in the Four Corners region now notorious for its atmospheric “methane bubble” visible from space. Navajo health statistics in the area are a disaster.

The Public Interest Deferred

But I think that the law allows for a lot of interpretation as to how its requirements may be met. So far it seems that the PRC is primarily passively responding to interpretations embedded in the PNM proposals rather than pro-actively framing the discussion in the interests of public safety and health as it should. The law does not say “no more than 20%” renewables by 2020. There is no reason why the PRC cannot aim for more than 20% by finding a strategy such as that proposed by New Energy Economy, which leads to the 20% minimum goal while improving the health, safety, and costs for New Mexicans, sooner rather than later.

Now, as if icing on the cake of malfeasance, two alleged clean-energy groups, “Western Resource Advocates” and the “Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy,” which are also interveners in the case, along with PRC Staff Counsel Patrick Lopez and NM Assistant Attorney General, P. Cholla Khoury, have signed a “compromise” deal that would accept PNM’s current plan and leave open the question of whether coal-fired generation at San Juan should continue operations after 2022. The two remaining coal-fired plants would remain open at San Juan through at least 2022. These putative environmental groups have acquiesced to virtually every element of the PNM proposed plan. Western Resource Advocates’ Web site brags that it has achieved a great “victory” for the environment. I guess that is how you spin allowing yourself to become a victim of cooptation by corporate polluters.

New Energy Economy had withdrawn from the negotiations. Perhaps its Director, Mariel Nanasi, smelled something. The strategy of cooptation has worked nationally for polluters in dealing with “Big Green” environmental groups for decades. Naomi Klein, Tim DeChristopher and others have independently documented the corruption of groups like The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and other Big Green groups by the polluters they were trying to work with. They supported climate schemes like carbon trading that gave corporations opportunity to profit from them while dodging real carbon emissions reduction. In the process of such compromises, Big Green “non-profit” organizations’ bank accounts swelled with corporate donations and the planet continued to overheat. This New Mexican “compromise” smells just like the fishy national failure of Big Green environmental groups.

Big Green Fails Again

The problem with Big Green groups in New Mexico is the same as with the national Big Energy and Big Environmental groups. Their deals are all about economics and politics – most of it self-serving. But Mother Nature doesn’t make deals. Anything short of rapid transition away from fossil fuels will accelerate the devastating climate disruptions already occurring. The convoluted legal “stipulation” filed with the PRC as a “compromise” with PNM, was also signed onto by PRC “Staff” – a peculiar element in itself. The “agreement” between PNM and the Big Green interveners kicks the emissions-can quite a ways down the regulatory road riddled with loopholes for PNM to wiggle through. I read it and found nothing that commits PNM to do any more than what it had already proposed. It’s a not-all-that-clever shell game, sufficiently convoluted as to deter all but the most persistent citizen from seeing the game for what it is.

Some PRC commissioners are happy with the compromise. Instead, the commissioners should demand robust compliance with the New Mexico State renewable energy goals set years ago then largely abandoned. We need serious emissions-reduction targets for New Mexico energy producers, not compromises that push solid climate action down the road.

Photo-voltaic Sun Tracker Generating Electricity at Home.

Photo-voltaic Sun Tracker Generating Electricity at Home.

PNM has severely reduced and eliminated incentives for citizens installing solar-electric equipment that would reduce fossil-fuels use – but not add to PNM’s profits. Citizen-owned distributed generation adds electricity to the grid without adding emissions, but does not add to PNM’s cost-basis for its profits. This leads PNM to discourage the very technology that is best for the public. The PRC appears oblivious to the urgency of the renewable-energy production transition, as the crisis of climate disruption accelerates. As Peggy O’Mara pointed out in last Sunday’s The New Mexican, the race for renewable energy has already passed a turning point. Continued reliance on coal is now a high financial risk as well as environmentally stupid. The PRC also has a fiduciary responsibility to the public to protect it from undue costs and financial risk. PNM’s plan would introduce new coal and nuclear health and liability risks to New Mexicans. On the other hand, the history of regulation in the U.S. is one of corporate control over agencies ostensibly meant to regulate them.

Public Rights or Private Privilege

This whole mess revolves around an “unmentionable” flaw in the way energy is supplied to the public – through a faux public utility. The goals of a public utility should match the public interest. The goals and actions of PNM as a privatized “public utility” – an oxymoron of sorts – do not. Its obvious schemes to increase profits at the expense of the public interest should be offensive to its customers. At a deeper level, its guaranteed monopoly profits based on its capital investments and operating costs, give incentive to create investments and costs to justify rate-increase demands – and increased profits.

This setup reminds me of those corrupt “cost plus” Defense Department contracts that enrich the likes of Boeing, Northrup-Grumman, and others with “cost overruns” at the tax-payer’s expense. Without real public oversight, it’s a never-ending cycle of gouging the public for private corporate profit. Unlike some investor-owned public utilities that are moving expeditiously to solar and wind, PNM is regressive in the extreme. New Mexicans simply cannot afford the wasted water, methane pollution, coal-dust diseases, nuclear liabilities, and profligate profiteering of PNM. Now if the PRC were to really do its job…

Certainly, converting from a privatized energy supplier like PNM to a publicly owned and operated public utility is complicated. Nevertheless, PNM and PRC failures to move quickly toward significant carbon-emissions reduction and affordable energy in ways that serve the public interest would make it well worth the effort in the long run. It is time for the people of New Mexico to look after their own interests and pressure the State to change the way it does the people’s business, especially where energy and a healthy environment are concerned.